Recognizing winners of 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Thomas Sudhof

Thomas Sudhof

It’s been a very exciting day to have three ASBMB members to win the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in vesicle trafficking. James Rothman of Yale University, Randy Schekman at the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Sudhof at Stanford University share the prize “for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells,” said the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet in its announcement this morning.

Vesicle trafficking “is the mode by which proteins move from place to place within the cell. This includes the process of internalization, in which receptors at the cell surface move inside the cell, as well as the reverse process, in which proteins, such as hormones, are secreted from cells,” explains Steven Caplan at the University of Nebraska who studies the process. “Such movement is essential for the normal functioning of every cell, and impaired vesicle trafficking leads to a host of diseases. More than anything, this Nobel Prize is a boon to those of us in the field and acknowledges the importance of understanding fundamental biological questions.”

Schekman used yeast genetics to identify more than 20 genes that are critical for vesicle trafficking. He showed that these genes could be classified into three categories of vesicle-transport regulation based on location: in the Golgi complex, in the endoplasmic reticulum and at the cell surface.

Rothman used biochemical approaches to establish the function of SNARE proteins. He demonstrated how different combinations of these proteins formed complexes to control cell fusion and properly delivered the cargo inside the vesicles to the right destination.

Undated photo of Rothman

Südhof (who recently won the Lasker Award in Basic Medical Research along with Genentech’s Richard H. Scheller) became interested in how vesicle fusion machinery was controlled. He worked out the mechanism by which calcium ions trigger release of neurotransmitters and identified key regulatory components in the vesicle fusion machinery, such as complexin and synaptotagmin-1.

“Together, Rothman, Schekman and Südhof have transformed the way we view transport of molecular cargo to specific destinations inside and outside the cell,” said the Nobel Prize press release.

Defects in vesicle trafficking have been linked to conditions such as neurological diseases, diabetes and immunological disorders.

We dug through our archives to find photos of today’s winners and found some gems. Enjoy!

Former ASBMB president Suzanne Pfeffer presents Rothman with a birthday cake in 2010. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=10732&terms=rothman&page_id=3

Former ASBMB president Suzanne Pfeffer presents Rothman with a birthday cake in 2010. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=10732&terms=rothman&page_id=3

Alumni from the Schekman and Rothman Labs reunite (from left): Peter Novick, Elizabeth Miller, Greg Payne, Sandra Schmid, Paul Melançon, Benjamin Glick, Randy Schekman, Vladimir Lupashin, James Rothman, James McNew, Fabienne Paumet, Claudio Giraudo, Nava Segev, Suzanne Pfeffer and Scott Emr in 2010. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=10732&terms=rothman&page_id=3

Alumni from the Schekman and Rothman Labs reunite in 2010 (from left): Peter Novick, Elizabeth Miller, Greg Payne, Sandra Schmid, Paul Melançon, Benjamin Glick, Randy Schekman, Vladimir Lupashin, James Rothman, James McNew, Fabienne Paumet, Claudio Giraudo, Nava Segev, Suzanne Pfeffer and Scott Emr in 2010. http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/asbmbtoday_article.aspx?id=10732&terms=rothman&page_id=3

Tracking how multiple proteins interact with each other

July 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

The role of SNARE proteins in a cellular process known as exocytosis. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exocytosis-machinery.jpg

The role of SNARE proteins in a cellular process known as exocytosis. Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Exocytosis-machinery.jpg

Proteins are great believers in hands-on teamwork. They come together in groups to directly interact with each other and set off reactions. But because these interactions happen over extremely tiny distances, watching them has been almost impossible. In a paper recently out in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers described a method that allows them to track multiple proteins that closely interact with each other below the optical diffraction limit at the single-molecule level.

The optical diffraction limit has been the long-standing problem of optical microscopy because it stops researchers from seeing events that happen at distances less than 200 nm, the limit of light diffraction. In the past decade, optical techniques have emerged that allow researchers to bypass this limit. The new techniques, such as single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET), have allowed researchers to view molecules on the scale of a few nanometers, distances that often take place in biological systems.

“But the single-molecule FRET technique has been able to follow only one protein complex,” explains Tae-Young Yoon at KAIST in South Korea, and multiple protein complexes within one diffraction-limited spot cannot be distinguished from one another.

So Yoon and colleagues developed a way to use single-molecule FRET on multiple proteins below the diffraction limit. As their proof of concept, they used SNARE proteins, which are involved in the fusion of lipid membranes. “It is now believed that, with only few exceptions, membrane fusion processes in eukaryotic cells are all mediated by the SNARE proteins, which underscores the importance of the SNARE family and their complex formation,” says Yoon. “Moreover, it has been long anticipated that SNARE proteins are in a clustered state and that multiple SNARE complexes are formed in a concurrent manner to maximize their impact to membrane fusion. The SNARE complex is an ideal and important model system for protein complexes working as a team.”

The investigators labeled all the proteins in a SNARE complex with the appropriate dyes. During conventional optical imaging, all the photons coming out from the dyes are detected at once, which makes it impossible to tell one dye from another. Yoon and colleagues defined quantized FRET states, where each state corresponded to a specific number of protein complexes activated at a given moment. They knew the value of the maximum FRET efficiency when all the protein complexes were activated at the same time. Then the researchers measured the total FRET efficiency of the protein complexes and compared this measurement with one of the quantized states. From the maximum value and their measurements, the investigators came up with a ratio that gave information about the number of activated protein complexes out of the total number of possible SNARE complexes.

There are some limitations with the approach. For one, the proteins in the complex have to stay paired long enough for their interaction to be measured. Another limitation is that the dyes have to be precisely and painstakingly attached to the proteins at proper locations to obtain the maximum number of photons out of each interaction.

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